HBO’s Project Greenlight has found itself at the center of controversy due to creator Matt Damon’s major bout of foot-in-mouth disease. Now in its fourth season, Project Greenlight is the Matt Damon and Ben Affleck passion project aimed at giving first-time filmmakers the opportunity to make their very own movie with the finest resources. During Sunday’s premiere episode, Damon, Affleck, and a group composed of the Farrelly Brothers (Dumb and Dumber) Effie Brown (producer of Dear White People) and a handful of other producers met with the finalists for the competition.
So, a quick census of the group: six White men, one White woman, and Brown, the lone woman of color. The 13 finalists included 11 (predominantly White) men and two White women.
Things started off chill as the nervous contestants pleaded their case one-by-one to the group. During solo interviews with the producers, we find out the importance of diversity to Effie Brown, as she passionately stated her desire to see and create a more diversified Hollywood.
Later, the camera trained itself on an excited Effie, as the directing pair of Leo Kei Angelos (a Vietnamese man) and Kristen Brancaccio (a White woman) talked about how important it is to handle Harmony (the film’s lead female character) sensitively. Leo expressed his happiness in having Kristen as a partner because “individually, he wouldn’t focus on that.”
After seeing all the finalists, the group discussed their favorites. Effie offered a note up front about the importance of considering diversity in their selection. The character Harmony is a Black prostitute who gets slapped by her White pimp. Effie worries that in the wrong hands, this could be handled disastrously. Leo and Kristen were the only ones who expressed sensitivity toward the character.
Enter Professor Damon of WhiteSplaining University, who interrupted Effie repeatedly before launching into some good ol’ privilege logic.
“When we talk about diversity, you do it in the casting of the film, not the casting of the show,” said Damon, who evidently thinks that casting some marginalized peeps is all the diversity a production needs.
Nah. That logic is one of the reasons we have a diversity problem to begin with.
Effie’s response echoed my own: a giant gasp of disbelief followed by “Oh. Wow. OK.” I watched as Effie collected herself, like so many of us do when our White bosses step out of line or tell us how we’re supposed to feel. You think, “I can’t believe he said that. I’m furious but I need this job. How can I address this and avoid being labeled an angry minority?”
My heart broke for Effie, the sole minority in the room, the lone voice for the marginalized perspective. She redirected her approach to no avail.
“I’m not mad,” she replied in an effort to deescalate the White fear/irritation brewing in the room. “But hang on, with love in my heart,” she added, reiterating her harmlessness. “Leo and Kristen talked about [diversity], and we can roll it back. He said it was good having her because she has a different perspective that he wouldn’t have thought about when talking about women. They did talk about it…” Suddenly, the rest of the room sprang to life, chiming in to proclaim that they, too, had a problem with the character and it needed work. That, folks, is damage control.
In a solo interview, Damon said he was happy Effie flagged the issue of diversity, that it was time for a change. “But ultimately, if suddenly you change the rules… you would undermine what the competition was supposed to be about… giving somebody this job based entirely on merit and leaving all other factors out of it,” he said. The word “merit” came frosted with a thick layer of coded language.
We’ve heard this rhetoric since affirmative action’s inception: the unqualified minorities are getting all the good jobs. This line of thinking aids the myth that all minorities are unqualified and reaping the benefits of yet another handout. We battle being considered “less than” all the time, and now we have to hear about it on one of the most popular premium cable networks in the world from a guy who we pay to see in numerous blockbuster movies.
When he approved this viral moment for the airwaves, there’s no way he could have foreseen the interchange would make him look foolish, while Effie Brown became universally lauded for her stance.
Matt Damon is the Harvard-educated son of a teacher. He is intelligent. If Matt Damon views diversity and merit separately, imagine what the hundreds of lesser-educated people who make Hollywood decisions think about marginalization. We can only hope that Damon learns that diversity and merit are not mutually exclusive. And Effie: keep doing your thing. Your voice is more valuable now than ever.